A version of this article was published on my old blog site, Green Politics: Sustainable Futures. I have reproduced it as I think the point I made around Party Spokespeople is more pertinent than ever.
As we curl up at home on these grim winter nights, a highlight has been my creeping addiction to Borgen. This recent Danish political drama focuses upon the female leader of a minor party, who suddenly finds herself thrust into leading a coalition government as Prime Minister. There is a distinct similarity to the journey taken by the Green Party in the last couple of years. It hasn’t hurt to see one of the key partners of this coalition is a politically savvy and successful Green leader at the cabinet table, reminding us once more how more seriously our party is seen within other European electorates.
It’s an intoxicating mix, yet as the political and economic environment deteriorates seriously in the UK and all three major parties come out in favour of a cuts agenda that patently isn’t working, why isn’t the Green Party rapidly climbing up the opinion polls in line with the public mood?
Talk to many Green Party members and a rosier picture emerges. These last two years have yielded crucial breakthrough moments for our party. After thirty plus years, we finally have our first Member of Parliament in party leader Caroline Lucas. We now run our first local authority in Brighton and Hove, protecting the elderly, vulnerable and children. A modest amount of headlines followed these amazing successes, but not a sufficient amount to have shifted perceptions of the party by the national media and public.
In the immediate aftermath of these victories, the party has rightly consolidated. Our priority has been to ensure that constituents are represented effectively by their MP and manifesto pledges are met by the local authority. The aggressive attacks mounting on the party in Brighton and Hove and the shameless coalition of Labour and the Conservatives to undermine the recent Council budget is a testament to the hard work and commitment of the local party in the city and the disquiet our opponents are experiencing at our steady progress.
But where is the strategy to move forward nationally? Across the country, hundreds of local parties are tirelessly working towards the next victory, yet there is a faint impression that we are resting on our laurels when we should be taking the fight to the coalition and Labour. Our recent achievements shouldn’t be the high point of our success – they should be a launching pad for our next big leap forward. We need to be hungry for actual power – as the state’s provision for the most vulnerable is stripped away, exacerbating inequalities, we need to be there promoting alternatives, not just complaining at how unfair it all is. But where is the next Brighton Pavilion? The local party in Norwich is the only place with an outside chance of success, although some boroughs in London are noticeably strengthening their position with the public.
Caroline Lucas has rapidly grown into a towering public figure. She is respected across the political spectrum to speak truth to power and is outshining the majority of national politicians. But where is the next Caroline Lucas? I fear that we are not investing sufficiently in building capacity amongst our activist base to nurture the next generation of politicians. As party leader, Caroline has an obligation to ensure the party functions to create such an enabling environment. Understandably, there are only so many hours in the day for her to act as party leader, parliamentarian and constituency MP, as well as retain some work / life balance. Heaping this amount of responsibility onto one set of shoulders is dangerous, but the party’s structural deficiencies aren’t helping here.
The role of Party Spokespeople is a case in point. The vast majority of green party members aren’t even aware they exist, let alone who they are. I challenge you to look over our website. The only people showcased are our national politicians: MP, MEPs and GLA members. It’s exceptionally difficult to ascertain who these spokespeople are – they aren’t elected by the party membership and they have no public duties that we can measure their performance against. The policy areas they cover aren’t consistent with the UK Government’s Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet portfolios, so we are unable to allow them to build ongoing public profiles or make it easier for the media to ask them for comment on issues of public concern. This model is undemocratic and unaccountable in a party that professes to be stronger than others on participation, democracy and fairness. Where underperformance exists, we have no mechanisms to monitor and evaluate this and no recourse to remove people who damage the party’s reputation. We wonder why we are sometimes seen as unresponsive to the big issues confronting the public, without looking at how we are presenting ourselves at a most basic level to them.
We need to bring these individuals out into the public eye. They should be elected to these positions by ordinary members and held account for their performance. These are ideal positions for us to build a cadre of experienced, professional politicians that become trusted figures for the public, doubly important whilst we are kept out of national elected office.
In recent weeks, I have heard about a new scheme brought forward by the Young Greens, which will link up and coming activists with political mentors in their areas of interest across the party. These are the sort of mechanisms we need to be investing at all levels of the party and I will be watching the progress of this keenly.
Until we invest in the next generation of Green political leaders, all eyes will remain on Brighton and Hove, placing our colleagues there under enormous scrutiny and pressure and without acknowledging the vast network of capable Green political figures up and down the country. Without opening up the party to a new generation of voices, the opportunities available to the politicians of Borgen remain the stuff of television drama.